Seminar CLXXI: Türks and Byzantine strategy

Returning now to my seminar backlog, I find myself reliving my last term in employment at Oxford, and fittingly in many ways, it more or less opened with a paper by Dr Mark Whittow, Byzantinist and generalist both and a man whom I think can cope with being described as a ‘good egg’ and who had on 22nd April 2013 taken convenor’s privilege at the Medieval History Seminar to present a paper called “Worlds in Motion: Byzantium’s Eurasian Policy in the Age of the Türk Empire, 550-630”.

Mark’s essential question was whether the Byzantine state of his period had anything that could be described as a foreign policy towards the area north and east of its great enemy, Persia, and he knew his audience well enough to know that this would mean setting out in some detail what actually happened in the area and, for example, why we were talking about Türks with a diaresis. Specifically, in fact, we were talking about the Gök Türks, a supposedly-ethnic group who emerged as a political quantity in the mid-sixth century in what is now Mongolia as subjects of the Avars (something we know largely from Chinese sources) but in 552 blew up and occupied the Eastern steppes, in 556 destroying the rule of the Hepthalites or White Huns in cooperation with Persia and beginning to move in on trade along the incipient Silk Roads in Sogdia. The Persian link didn’t serve them well, however, and in 568 their western ruler made an approach to the Byzantine Emperor Justin II, leading to a joint attack on Persia in 573 that however went very badly, so that the Türks then gave up on Byzantium and in fact nicked the Crimea off it. (I have to admit, I had not known till this point that Byzantium had ever held the Crimea. I have a lot to learn.)

Sixth-to-eighth-century petroglyphs supposedly showing Gök Türks

This is the best Wikimedia Commons can do me for pictures of Gök Türks, pictures in stone from Mongolia dated to between the sixth and eighth centuries, which is at least about right for our purposes. All the same, I don’t feel this illustrates much…

This was the beginning of the end for a Türk empire that had for a while stretched from Mongolia to Iran. In 581 Persia and China managed to put together simultaneous campaigns that broke up the Türks’ eastern Qaghanate, leaving only the western one. It was however to this that a desperate Emperor Heraclius, he of beards but not badgers as I think we have shown, turned in 624 when no other expedient against the lately-triumphant Persia seemed available. the Türks had already raided Persia in 618, and no other help was to be had, so in 626 Heraclius began attacking Persia from the east, rather than the west, and next year the Türks joined in. (This we have from Nikephoros.) Exactly what contribution this made to the emperor’s following victory and the Persian collapse of 628 is probably still to be worked out but the Türks descended into civil war the next year and that is about the last we see of the Gök Türks as an autonomous polity.

A Byzantine silver plate showing David confronting his brother Eliab, thought to have been made in celebration of Heraclius's victory over Persia, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Byzantine silver plate showing David confronting his brother Eliab, thought to have been made in celebration of Heraclius’s victory over Persia, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art but found on Wikimedia Commons

Can all this be counted as a policy, then, asked Mark? Well, in some senses no: it’s not a policy for Eurasia in the way that China had a policy for the steppes, a continuous attempt to consider them as part of their total strategic picture. What it could be seen as is a continuation of attempts to use groups from this area as an outside threat to the Persians, a diplomatic outflanking manœuvre, like the Huns and before them the Sarmatians, the Hephthalites, the Avars, a continuation which meant, even if contact was sporadic and very much to current purposes, maintaining some kind of awareness of who was out there, what languages one needed to deal with them, and what interests they had. This presumably all became a lot more relevant when Persia was strong or active, and that information might not be something emperors carried round in their heads at all times, but the further part of the strategic map was, Mark argued, never quite empty in this period, because one never knew when it would become advisable to use it.

This all raised a goodly number of questions. I asked the obvious and perhaps unfair one about what made up Türk ethnicity, unfair because it’s a question we don’t really have the means to answer. There was also some interest in what role control of the Silk Roads played in the Türk position, which seems to have been something the Türks themselves emphasised but about which again we can say little. There were also questions about how all this looked from other perspectives, not least that of the Türks: what did they want from Byzantium, did they have policies of their own that we can guess at? To this Mark’s answer was that their priorities seemed to be to hold onto access to the Silk Roads and keep the Avars at bay or beyond, though it does seem to me that in that case their involvement with Heraclius was an own goal, as it seems likely to have made the Avars stronger, but perhaps Persia was become too much of a threat, or too rich, to ignore. I wonder about the possibility of a régime in crisis turning to outside victories to bolster its status in what was, if so, obviously an insufficient ploy. But for the most part I was happy to sit back and learn from this paper, which was immensely informative about an area of which I know far less than I should.

I couldn’t attempt to footnote this paper given the state of my knowledge, but two major references which might be good places to start were Thomas Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757 (Oxford 1999) and James Howard-Johnston, Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford 2010).

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